Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site


Secular scrutiny can save the Church

  • 18 January 2013

On Wednesday Peter McClellan, the NSW Supreme Court Judge leading the royal commission into child abuse in institutions, told the media that the commission's task will be long and complex. No surprises there.

His point was to contain expectations among the media that the commission would be anything other than a hard slog, and that he expected that one of the outcomes, apart from legal proceedings that would not be the work of the commission, was the prospect of greater rigour in the execution of child protection procedures.

The following day brought the publication of the findings of Antony Whitlam QC into the handling of 'Father F', a serial abuser in rural NSW and then suburban Sydney.

Whitlam found Father F's ordaining bishop, Harry Kennedy (now deceased) to be culpably negligent, for failing to act on advice from those responsible for Father F in seminary days or to follow up complaints and allegations against Father F when he was acting as a priest.

Game on. This sort of scrutiny will only intensify.

There is little doubt that the perceived inadequacy of the Church's response to child abuse is the trigger for this commission. Alleged cover ups and the claims of a NSW police officer that Church officials obstructed investigations and protected child molesters were the immediate context for the calling the for the commission.

Many see 2013 as a miserable prospect for the Church in Australia, maybe the worst in its history. It is numbed and bewildered. Its leadership has its back to the wall, unable to say much except sorry.

But no approach to history is adequate without a sense of irony. In the long term, if handled properly, this period may well be seen as the circuit breaker that triggers many of the things long hoped for in the Church. And it will be freedoms of a secular liberal society rather than the freedom of the Gospel that could liberate the Church.

It will put a nail in the coffin of clericalism, that 'them and us' culture that fosters an elitism which is the very opposite of Christian discipleship, and which nurtures all those things that mark closed societies: secrecy; the power of the cognoscenti who use their access to information as a power over others; the habit of deception